Anti-SLAPP bill introduced in Oregon Senate

Friday, January 29, 1999

A measure introduced this week in the Oregon Senate would help protect citizens from groundless lawsuits filed to silence citizens who speak out on public issues at school boards, city council meetings and other public hearings.

Drafted by the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, the Citizens Participation in Government Act of 1999 would protect people from SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation) for statements made “in the course of participating in an administrative, quasi-judicial or legislative proceeding conducted by a public body.”

“The intent of this bill is to limit and discourage the use of SLAPP suits to keep people from testifying at public hearings,” said Mitch Rohse, policy development specialist for the land conservation department.

“We had lots of anecdotal evidence that many lawsuits have been filed against Oregon citizens to intimidate them from speaking out on matters of public concern,” Rohse said.

Jeffrey Lamb, chairman of Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexation, applauds the proposed legislation. “SLAPP suits stifle public participation in our political system and are offensive to the First Amendment,” he said. “SLAPP suits represent a subversion of democracy and an erosion of constitutional rights.”

Lamb says several members of his group, which promotes the right of citizens to speak out about land-use issues, have either been threatened with lawsuits or been the actual victims of baseless litigation filed by developers. Such practices amount to “legal and economic terrorism,” according to Lamb.

The lawsuits are troubling, he says, because — even if they are baseless — they cost citizens thousands of dollars in legal fees. The proposed legislation addresses this problem by stating that “a court shall award reasonable attorney fees, costs and all other reasonable expenses including expert witness expenses” to a defendant who prevails in a SLAPP suit.

Robert Richards, founding director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, says the problem posed by SLAPP suits is a “national phenomenon.”

“The number of SLAPP suits nationwide is staggering,” Richards said. “We know we have a serious problem with these lawsuits because thousands have been identified; but for every thousand that have been identified, there are probably thousands and thousands that have not been.”

Richards supports the initiative in Oregon but says that the measure is missing one key component. He identifies the three key parts of effective anti-SLAPP laws as:

  • A motion to strike or other legal mechanism to end the lawsuit.
  • Immunity for the defendant — either absolute or qualified.
  • Recovery of legal fees, including attorney fees.

While the Oregon law provides for a level of immunity and the recovery of attorney fees, Richards points out that the measure does not provide for a “legal mechanism that allows for quick disposition of the case.”

Richards says that 12 states currently have anti-SLAPP laws and 10 other states, including Oregon, are considering such legislation. The states with anti-SLAPP laws are Delaware, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington.